Volvo’s active lifestyle focus and commitment to humanistic design are two reasons I feel a special connection to the automaker. My husband and I have owned three Volvos, including a C30 currently parked in our garage.
Before its demise, Saab had the reputation of attracting niche performance enthusiasts, whereas Volvo was the volume leader, focusing on safety in lieu of sportiness.
Volvo sought to shed its sedate image, beginning in 1995 with a series of R cars. The R cars looked like standard issue Volvos, but they were a lot faster. One encounter with the 850 T-5R was all most drivers needed to rethink their misconceptions about Volvo performance.
Unfortunately, the R cars remained a well-kept secret, despite their availability in the United States until 2007. If Volvo hoped to conquest performance enthusiasts from German and Japanese automakers, it was going to have to get more aggressive.
So it did. Beginning in 2009, Volvo began working with its motorsports partner, Polestar, on factory performance packages for its production models. Those products launched in North America last year. Today, owners of C70, XC70, XC60 and C30 models can add power with Polestar performance tuning.
Polestar recalibrates the car’s on-board computer for quicker throttle response and more turbo boost. The re-flash also modifies spark timing and fuel delivery, so the vehicle maintains its original fuel economy and remains emissions legal.
Buyers who want to push the performance envelope a step further can purchase R-Design models, which add unique styling, wheels, suspension tuning and brake components.
Polestar tuning adds juice to Volvo’s crossover vehicles
While both the XC60 and XC70 crossovers are geared towards outdoor enthusiasts, their personalities are quite different.
The XC70 all-wheel drive model, a former Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year winner, appeals to buyers who need some serious off-road capability. Its low profile, similar to a station wagon, gives the XC70 better aerodynamics and hence gas mileage than other cars with similar attributes. Highway fuel economy is 24 miles-per-gallon, according to EPA estimates.
Polestar tuning yields similar horsepower and torque boosts to the XC70 with the turbocharged six-cylinder engine. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is 6.6 seconds. The performance package costs $1475.
Test drives in eastern Arizona
Recently, Volvo invited a group of journalists to test the XC60 R-Design and XC70 with Polestar on paved and dirt roads in wilderness areas north and east of Phoenix. I drove the XC70 with Polestar on the Apache trail, a paved and dirt road stretching between the foothills of the Superstition Mountains to Roosevelt Dam, near the mining town of Globe. The 20-mile stretch of dirt road includes some steep inclines and descents, with a net altitude gain up to about 4000 feet.
The route for the XC60 included a more significant altitude gain, climbing between Scottsdale at 1500 feet and the town of Payson, at 5100 feet. Driving south on the Bush Highway was a chance to test steering response on a two-lane road with some sharp off-camber turns.
While Polestar tuning adds a significant performance boost to vehicles, it’s by no means radical. Both vehicles maintain their basic personalities, but with a bit more punch. Horsepower and torque enhancements kick in at partial throttle, as opposed to some re-flashes, which only affect wide-open throttle.
Drivers will notice better power in the 20-to-50 mile-per-hour range merging into high-speed traffic. The additional horsepower and torque give vehicles more finesse climbing grades, and passing other vehicles at speed.
All-wheel drive adds control on unimproved roads
The Apache Trail is an unimproved dirt road, not an off-road trail. However, since more remote sections are rarely graded, summer rains produce ruts which deepen from tourist traffic in the cooler weather. Loose dirt reduces traction on steep hills which narrow down in several points to a single lane. It’s important to maintain directional control, since drivers periodically need to stop quickly if vehicles are approaching from the opposite direction.
In addition to driving the XC70 on the dirt road, we veered off occasionally on what I would consider to be moderate off-road trails. Although 8.3-inches of ground clearance might not seem like a lot, it was adequate for clearing rocks and roots along the way. Standard skid plates protect sensitive parts of the chassis from damage.
An optional air filtration system inside the vehicle kept dust, which can be considerable along the road, from entering the cabin. Standard air vents in the B pillars circulate air throughout the back of the vehicle to keep it from feeling stuffy.
Although the XC70 has an off-road focus, its performance on paved roads is indistinguishable from similar-sized passenger cars. Available features such as blind spot warning, which Volvo invented, ultrasonic obstacle detection and rearview cameras make the all-wheel drive wagon an ideal commuter car for people living in climates with serious winters.
Safety technologies make commuting safer
Our test drive included some moderately heavy rush-hour traffic on a loop freeway which runs through Phoenix’s east valley, before heading east towards the Superstition wilderness. Adaptive cruise control on the test car enables the driver to select both speed and following intervals.
If another car passes in front of the Volvo, the XC70 automatically adjusts its speed to maintain the preset distance behind the car in front. The advantage over conventional cruise control is that the driver can keep the system engaged, and maximize gas mileage in dense traffic.
Volvo’s obstacle detection program with automatic braking is capable of sensing both cars and pedestrians. The feature has the ability to stop the vehicle completely if it is traveling at speeds below 20 miles-per-hour. At faster speeds, it slows the vehicle down to significantly reduce the severity of an impact. As a runner who’s had numerous encounters with distracted motorists, I wish that the feature was required by law on all automobiles.
Other safety systems monitor driver fatigue and inadvertent lane departure, using visual and audible cues to alert the driver. Standard Bluetooth interface provides hands-free telephone usage and streaming audio.
A newly design gauge cluster and center stack inside the XC70 are easier to read. The bright blue gauges freshen up the interior with some pops of color.
Versatile interiors appeal to active families
Both the XC60 and XC70 appeal to active families, with available heated seats in both first and second rows, height-adjustable boosters, navigation, spacious cargo bays and standard navigation with real-time traffic alerts.
Rear seats in both cars can fold flat, to extend the cargo floor. The XC70’s front passenger seat also folds flat, making it possible to load very long items inside the car. Aluminum cargo rails in the XC70’s cargo floor with tie-down loops on either side make it easy to secure large items. Both the XC60 and XC70 tow up to 3300 pounds: slightly short of our ALV minimum standard.
Available heated windshield washer nozzles work in extreme cold, while rain-sensing wipers keep the glass clear in intermittent rain. Headlamp washers prevent the lenses from becoming clogged with snow or dirt. In sunny weather, a panoramic sunroof on the XC60 brings an abundance of ambient light inside the cabin.
Despite their floor tunnels, both the XC60 and XC70 have plenty of room in the second-row seats for three adults.
Both the Volvo XC60 and XC70 come with front, side and side curtain airbags, a rearview camera, tire pressure monitoring, whiplash resistant front head restraints, antilock brakes, stability and traction control. Volvo’s factory warranty includes complimentary maintenance for up to three years or 36,000 miles, and four years of roadside assistance.
Likes: Volvo’s two crossover vehicles offer buyers a choice between sportier performance on paved roads, or more off-road capability. Both feature the innovative safety features Volvo is famous for and exceptional styling. Polestar tuning adds usable power under the hood, which drivers will find beneficial in everyday driving situations.
Dislike: The high MSRP of both models may keep them off the consideration list for some members of the target market.
Model: XC70 Premier Plus AWD with Polestar
Base price: $37,750
As tested: N/A
Horsepower: 325 Hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 354 lbs.-ft. @ 2100 rpm
Zero-to-sixty: 6.6 seconds
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: Yes
Fuel economy: 18/24 mpg city/highway